HURRICANE SANDY sent 4 feet of water through Milly Brambilla's Brigantine, N.J., home. But it hasn't dampened the 85-year-old's enthusiasm for holiday baking.
Every Christmas, Brambilla's family and friends look forward to her homemade cookies. Relocated to her daughter and granddaughter's houses in South Jersey while hers is being repaired, Brambilla was determined not to disappoint.
"So what are you gonna do?" she said, explaining that she feels lucky her house can be fixed and that she hopes to be back there by spring. "Some people lost their houses altogether."
This month's Top Cook makes more than cookies, of course. Brambilla prepares upward of 100 meatballs at a time for family feasts, and she's known for her homemade pastas and raviolis. For more than three decades, she made veal-stuffed tortellini from a recipe her mother-in-law taught her. She froze them in big batches to put in her chicken soup.
"I don't make that much anymore," she said. "It's too much work. But the grandkids keep asking me why I don't make it!"
Brambilla said her mother taught her how to cook, and friends helped as well. "Yeah, friends will show you and tell you you gotta put a little of this and that . . . ."
She doesn't use many tools - and that's one of the difficulties she faces this holiday. Baking in an unfamiliar oven has her worried. Especially because it's new.
"There's too many buttons to push," she said. She also prefers her small, handheld mixer to the heavy-duty stand model available to her now.
While her displacement from things familiar is a little problematic, the baking is in full swing. Heading her list of treats are Italian Honey Balls, Biscotti, Pizzelles and pressed butter cookies her grandkids call "Tracks."
Here's how she does the Italian classic biscotti, whose name comes from a Latin derivation of twice-cooked. The cookies are baked in a large log and, while warm, cut into pieces and baked again.
2 sticks margarine
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
With a mixer, blend together margarine, sugar, eggs and vanilla. Blend in baking powder and flour.
Divide dough into 4 logs about 1-1/2 inches in diameter.
Bake logs for 20 minutes or until firm to touch. Right out of the oven, cut on a diagonal at about 1 inch apart. Cool on a rack for about 15 minutes.
Put back in the oven to toast on each side for two minutes, or until dry and crispy.
Optional: Add chocolate chips, walnuts or dried cranberries to the batter or, when finished baking, melt chocolate for 60 seconds in the microwave and dip the bottoms of the biscotti into the chocolate. Cool on a rack. Makes 4 dozen.
ARE YOU A GREAT HOME COOK? Do you know someone who is? On the third Thursday monthly, the Daily News celebrates people who know their way around the kitchen. If your Top Cooks nominee is published in the paper, they will receive a cookbook or other prize for participating. And, yes, you can nominate yourself. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write: Top Cooks, Philadelphia Daily News, 801 Market St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Include your name and a daytime phone number.